Making Music - Computer Music Software and Hardware - Time Signatures Part 1

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Quick Guide To Time Signatures
Time signatures are used to describe the beat and pulse of the music. make sense of the figures and see how the numbers add up...

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You don't have to be able to read and write notation in order to make music - but it will helps. Sir Paul McCartney apparently says he doesn't read music although it's difficult to believe that he could write so many songs over so many years without picking up a few basics. The two main components of music are pitch and rhythm. Time signatures tell the musician what the rhythm and pulse of the music is. You can probably enjoy a lucrative career as a rock star without knowing anything other than 4/4 time but we'll assume you want to be a little more adventurous than that.

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On the beat
Most music has a regular beat or pulse which we can generally hear because certain notes are accented or emphasised more than others. If a musician was presented with a string of notes like this:

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it would not be at all clear how to play it. If the notes were accented as in one of these examples:

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Making Music - Computer Music Software and Hardware - Time Signatures Part 1

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then you would play the first example with a three-beat and the second with a four-beat. Instead of accenting notes in this way throughout an entire piece, we place a bar line in front of the most heavily-accented notes. Time signatures are added to give us more exact information about the beats.

The numbers racket
Time Signatures consist of two numbers, one above the other. However, they are not fractions and to think of them as such will be confusing. The top number tells us the number of beats in a bar while the lower number tells us the type or value of the beat. There are four beat values in common use:

The American preference for naming notes as a fraction of a whole note or semibreve is more intuitive than the English nomenclature and many modern musicians tend to use that now. The upper number, the number of beats in a bar, can technically be any value from 1 upwards (depending on how avant garde and controversial the composer wants to be) but it's unusual to find values above 12. There are two types of time signature called simple and compound.

Simple time signatures
Simple time signatures have 2, 3 and 4 as their upper number and academics refer to them as
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Making Music - Computer Music Software and Hardware - Time Signatures Part 1

duple, triple and quadruple time. Here are the most common examples:

4/4 is sometimes written as

and sometimes called Common Time.

2/2 is sometimes written as

and referred to as Alla Breve or Cut Time. To avoid

possible confusion, the modern preference is to write these time signatures out in full.

Tech terms
The big O The C alternative for 4/4 time is not a capital letter for 'Common'. In old music the letter O was used for 3-time as it was believed to represent the trinity and the circle was held to be the symbol of perfection. Music in 2- or 4-time was represented by a broken C representing an imperfect or incomplete circle.

Probably 90 percent of western music is written in 4/4 time - and 99.9 percent of rock and pop! 3/4 is waltz time, much popularised by Johann Strauss who wrote the most famous waltz of all time - the Blue Danube - which gained a second round of fame in the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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